‘When I think of my body as a horse’ poetry collection review

Motherhood is a universal club women take for granted, until they find their entrance is barred. The poems in When I think of my Body as a Horse by Wendy Pratt are about the struggle to gain membership to this club. They are beautifully written poems, but not easy to read because they deal with the death of Wendy and her husband Chris’s daughter, Matilda. The collection is a testimony, not only of Matilda’s life but also the siblings who were conceived, then lost.

The book follows the journey Wendy and Chris made as they tried to start a family.  Like so many others, they had no idea what the future held. This is poignantly shown in the intimate Sleep (for Chris), which contains a terrible prescience in its final lines. A single star in the sky

can stare straight in at our nudity
our utter innocence.

With no indication of what lies ahead, we are innocent of future delights and tragedies. Instead we live from day to day and in The Language of Pre-Motherhood, Wendy is unable to find the moment of change when the decision was made to become parents.

I don’t remember a discussion,
but there must have been one

there must have been a catalyst
the thinnest slice of the thinnest razor
splitting the moment

when we went from being two
to the imaginary three

Membership of the Motherhood Club guarantees common ground, one which offers affinity with strangers and provides topics of conversation which can be relied on. You gain automatic entry with the birth of your first child, while the months prior to birth are like standing in front of its open doors. looking inside. This is the time when baby shopping is validated, and you’re exposed to the vast range of products you had no idea existed. You think of your own mother and grandmother, and how it’s your turn to perpetuate the archetype of motherhood. Wendy describes this in the language of sainthood.

And I waited meekly for my turn 
as one by one the others were beatified 
rising up: a rapture of motherhood…

… Until there was no one left 
who spoke my language.

The language was infertility. Diagnosis tells the reader there are problems on both sides, with just two lines representing 60 individual months of hope and subsequent loss.

The five years we’ve been trying
to conceive: a waste of time.

I’m not entirely sure where Matilda first appears. It might be the thirteenth poem titled Embryo Transfer, where Wendy and Chris have to wait 14 days to know if an embryo has embedded.

                   In exactly fourteen days, 
the morning will arrive and you may 
be carted away; a mote of a dream 
on the razor edge slant of the morning’s light.
Until then let me keep you with me,
held fast with blood and imagination,
longing and love.

Two poems later, there is the wonderfully titled Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, dedicated to the memory of M. If this is Matilda, these are the poems where she exists. Nesting is about shopping for ‘tiny baby bits’ and putting the Moses basket together.  My Favourite Memory describes feeling like a Russian doll with infinite babies inside, and the sensation of being kicked ‘down into my cervix, pushing up under my ribs’. The poems fill the reader with hope until Tachycardia tells us something has gone wrong. The title is the medical term for a heart rate over 100 beats per minute and this appears to be the point where the baby dies.

The aftermath is Air, a poem which refers to a funeral, white coffin, the tiny grave and contains the heartbreaking cry ‘Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?  Air is followed by The Circle of Sisters where Wendy describes the shift from expectant mother to becoming the woman who was different.

I became an embarrassment. I was no longer 
a sister of the circle, but my body 
couldn’t forget their dance, so I danced
in the shadow of my sisters, and shouted
my daughter’s story through the gaps. 

The drive to become a mother is primaeval. Women are biologically, socially and culturally guided towards parenthood from their earliest moments. Every month contains the possibility of pregnancy, too often followed by loss. In Warning, the reader is reminded how the painful process manifests itself. Like the single reference to five years of trying to conceive in Diagnosis, this poem ends with the painfully brief sharing of two further bereavements.

All the time I am warning others, 
My body has become a broken machine
sparking life then promptly distinguishing it. 

I warn myself not to get too happy, 
not to get too comfortable, or too complacent
with the tiny heartbeats in my womb. But I do, 
and death comes, twice more.

The theme of hares runs throughout the collection. They include the wonderful When Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, Hare Enters the Bedroom, and The Hare Refuses to Speak. Hares are associated with rebirth, the coming of spring and new beginnings. In Hare we’re told,

My husband buys me hare-themed
gifts; we have hare cushions
and hare notebooks.

Hares are also icons for fertility and a symbol of hope, but in this collection, it’s the pattern of loss which continues. Sixth Birthday shows Matilda’s memory living on as Wendy imagines a day spent with Chris and their daughter at the seaside.

In Seven, Wendy visits Matilda’s grave and in Packing the Maternity Clothes Away, another step on the journey of acceptance is painfully taken.

How limp they all look 
how dispossessed, how empty.

It’s like I dropped them here,
when I heard she was leaving,
and returned seven years later. 

Eight revisits some of the time Wendy and Chris spent with Matilda.

I held you like a doll. 
I should have touched 
those still-wet curls, 
sucked those little fingers
kissed your foot soles 
while you were warm.

In Nine, the annual ritual is played out again, with this poem containing what, for me, is one of the saddest lines in the collection.

The pause where we 
wait to hear your first breath
has lasted nine years.

After a bereavement, common phrases are used by family, friends and strangers, such as time heals, you’ll get over it, you can always try again and so on. The truth is, time doesn’t heal and you don’t get over it. All you can do is learn to live with loss and it’s within the process of living where something eventually shifts. This is beautifully shown in Nine Years of Mourning.

There is a snap of umbilicus.
We slide apart. I step away.

Today I climb out of my skin;
my mourning dress. I am nude and white
as a stripped willow branch. I leave the dress behind,
stiff with the sweat of surviving.

The following title poem, When I Think of my Body as a Horse, speaks more about this acceptance.

I do not blame it for lost babies, 
it did its best. I do not blame 
myself for lost babies. I did my best.

I ride my body in a slow companionship.
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful, 
you are beautiful, 

There is no language adequate to describe the loss of a child or children, and no social vocabulary for childlessness by circumstance rather than choice. Becoming a family is taken for granted and most couples are not taught how to live fulfilling lives on their own, or given advice for dealing with years of failed attempts to conceive.

In these 50 poems, Wendy has started the essential process of finding ways to speak about losing your babies. In doing so, she has created a collection which will resonate with anyone who has been through a similar situation, or knows somebody who has.

The book ends with hope of a different kind. At the end of the day, two people chose to make a life together, neither of them knowing what lay ahead. Eventually, the time arrives to draw a line under the failed attempts for a viable pregnancy. The decision is made to abandon the fertility clinics and rounds of IVF. The couple accept they are two, and not three or more. The people who met and fell in love continue to exist, and it’s recognising and cherishing this partnership that matters most of all.


When I Think of My Body as a Horse, by Wendy Pratt, is the winner of the 2020 International Book & Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker & Ian McMillan. The book can be purchased from the Poetry Society website here

When I Think of My Body as a Horse is Wendy’s third full collection. The first collection, Museum Pieces, was published by Prolebooks and the second Gifts the Mole Gave Me was published by Valley Press.

Wendy’s website, Wendy Pratt Writing, contains further details of publications and poetry courses.


 

 

Rejection blues

For some time I’ve been suggesting to fellow poets we need to create a rejection society. This would be our own Salon des Refusés  Somewhere to share how it feels to open emails containing the words ‘not this time‘ or a sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…

The standard advice is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. – or – the poem might not fit the theme – or – the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces.

These inevitably mean saying no to good work.

Too often there’s no feedback to explain the decision. It’s rare for editors to comment but occasionally one might refer to liking a particular poem and even say why. This is gold. Not only does it confirm you’re on the right path, it’s a welcome reward for having the courage to submit in the first place.

For most writers, it takes bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing in the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection is personal. You have to learn to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I began sending work out in August 2020. Since then I’ve had 22 acceptances and 77 rejections. I’m not good at maths but that’s definitely more no’s than yes’s, and it still hurts to see a poem come home.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Rejection is also an opportunity to improve my work.

A common reason for the no word, is the poem doesn’t conform to submission guidelines so always double-check these, especially the word or line limits, and be sure to read the journal you’re submitting to. If your work doesn’t fit its theme or style then it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy. As for any lines or phrases which didn’t feel quite right – now’s the time to rethink them. Make every syllable earn its place. less is more and all that. Reread some poetry books or watch YouTube poetry videos, both your favourites and maybe some new ones.

I’d recommend the following –

Find some critical friends. Being told your work is great does wonders for your ego, but you need more specific detail, such as what works and what doesn’t.

The downside of critique is conflicting advice which leaves you uncertain of which way to go. Here instinct and intuition come in.

I submitted a poem to an online poetry group and without exception, everyone came back to say they didn’t like the ending, yet I did.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings‘ has been attributed to various writers but it doesn’t really matter who first said it. What counts is being prepared to let go of something you think is good when no one else does. In this case, I’ve kept the poem as it was because I feel so strongly about it. However, if it goes out for submission and gets repeatedly rejected, at least I’ll have an idea why!

Stay positive.

Submission is a strange experience. Quite often a personal favourite is declined while the least favourite, or the one added at the last minute to make up the numbers, is accepted. Also, there’s the poem you really like which keeps coming back home, until someone somewhere unexpectedly says Yes.

Subjectivity is the name of the game and there isn’t much you can do, other than stay calm and keep submitting.

Remember you’re not alone.

J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was famously rejected by 12 different publishers, and the advice she received included “You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?” I wonder what they think today wherever they’re in the R section of Waterstones!

Stephen King is also no stranger to rejection. Carrie was turned down by no less than 30 publishers, Despite being told “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. he kept sending it out. You might not like the genre or Stephen King’s style of writing but his persistence is worth remembering.

There are lots more examples of rejection responses online, such as the one in the image above which was sent to Alice Walker about The Colour Purple.  If you’re having the rejection blues, try these https://www.openculture.com/2013/11/rejection-letters-sent-to-three-famous-artists.html I guarantee reading them will make you feel at least a tiny bit better.

To end with, always remember the quote below from Sylvia Plath (The Unabridged Journals)I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

The next post is from the series ‘beekeeping through history’ and offers a journey through the world of medieval beekeeping.


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All images are copyright free and taken from pixabay.com


tarot archetypes as poetry prompts

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Last month I posted some thoughts about archetypes and poetry. These touched on the role of the unconscious in creativity and how studying archetypes can help create bridges between our inner and outer worlds. Archetypes reside at an unconscious level, but by lifting them into the light, it’s possible to utilise these universal images and ideas. A tarot pack is full of archetypal figures and this post explores how they might be used for writing poetry.

Jo Bell in How to be a Poet suggests ‘Poetry is part alchemy, part practical formula‘ (2017: 34). Alchemy is a useful word for describing the writing of poems. Combining science and magic, the alchemical process is not dissimilar to how solid words can frame more transient thoughts and emotions. To be an alchemist is to work with the transmutation of one substance to another, while poets need to utilise both realism and symbols, and be able to segue seamlessly between conscious and unconscious levels.

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sometimes a poem appears and you find yourself wondering where it came from, or weeks might pass without the magic happening. In the way an alchemist deals with multiple layers of reality, poets often work in those blurred spaces between the real and symbolic. For the times when the poetry gets stuck, I find tarot cards a useful stick for prodding the unconscious back into action.

A tarot deck consists of two parts; the major and minor arcana (arcana from the Latin for hidden or secret). There are clear similarities between the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds of today’s playing cards and the swords, cups, wands and pentacles in the minor arcana. However, the origins of the major arcana are less obvious.

These 22 cards are full of archetypal images such as the Fool, Magician, and Lovers but their exact beginnings are unknown. There’s no references to tarot prior to the 15th century, and current links with the occult and mysticism can all be traced to the writings of Eliphas Levi in the 1800’s. Working with tarot involves accepting these blurred origins. It’s best to think of the cards as being less about where they came from, and more about how they’re used today.

The strength of the tarot is it can be whatever you want. Packs have been linked to numerology, mysticism, spirituality, occult, astrology, kabbalah, fortune-telling, a psychological journey, therapy, meditation and so on. The list is almost endless. The reason for this eclectic spread of beliefs is because the cards use the language of symbols, and this ensures everyone can relate to them on a personal level.

examples from the Arthur Rackham tarot pack

There are over a hundred different tarot packs ranging from traditional designs to more contemporary ones, many of which are themed. I recently added the Arthur Rackham deck to my collection because I’ve always loved his illustrations.

However, most of the time, I use the Rider-Waite deck illustrated by ‎Pamela Colman Smith. First published in 1909, there’s a picture story on each of its 78 cards. I’ve had this pack all my life and it’s the images underpin a collection of 22 tarot poems, one for each card in the major arcana, which is currently under development. The choice of pack is important. The design has to have lasting appeal and this one remains my go-to set for new ideas and inspiration.

Connections with archetypes are clearly visible on most of the cards, in particular the major arcana.

For example, the Empress represents everything to do with creativity and the natural world. She is fertility, motherhood, abundance and femininity as opposed to the masculine energies of the Emperor, who stands for authority, leadership and control.

The High Priestess is also a feminine card, but whereas the Empress is about physical reality, the priestess represents the intuitive and spiritual world of the heart and mind, hidden behind the veil in her temple. The Hierophant is the male equivalent and stands for the physical dimensions of faith and belief, alongside a need for study and shared experience. While the High Priestess (initially called the Papess) is about solitary intuition, the Hierophant (or Pope) is more to do with bringing together people with similar spiritual attitudes and ideas.

The chariot is another physical card. This time the individual is being torn between opposing forces, represented by two sphinx or horses. These are often shown in contrasting colours and facing opposite directions. The Chariot signifies a need for strength or willpower to bring disparate, sometimes contradictory, elements together. Physical endeavour is required to enable a destination to be reached, or a desire to be realised.

In contrast, the Hermit is silent and solitary. This card always reminds me of the archetypal wizard in myth and legend. His stick might be a wand (tarot wands represent the element of fire) plus he carries a hexagon star for light.  The landscape suggests standing on top of a mountain range, but there’s no sense of movement. It’s a card which signifies both consciousness and unconsciousness and the Hermit has learned to move between them with grace.

Other cards with clear connections to archetypes include Death, Devil, Sun and Moon. The origins of cards such as the Hanged Man and Tower stuck by Lightening are less obvious but they are equally full of symbolic meaning.

While each card represents a given set of ideas and images, they can also spark unique insight which derives from individual ways of seeing and being in the world. Used as prompts for creative writing, the tarot offers a valuable psychological tool for bridging real and imaginary and can stimulate creative responses from both the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.

image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/full-moon-forest-woman-wolf-1654539/

The cards can be used as tools for meditations, or to stimulate a free-writing session. You can work with the cards singly, in pairs, threes, or even a circle. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • imagine each character’s name and background.
  • where do they come from?
  • where are they going?
  • focus on potential sounds, what can you hear?
  • is the water smooth and calm, or wild?
  • examine the landscapes, are there mountains, a garden or a desert?
  • what can you smell?
  • how is the weather, is it hot, cold, wet, dry etc?
  • which colours are the strongest and what do they remind you of?
  • which three characters would you invite for dinner?

Get to know each person. Do you know anyone who looks like they do? Swap their gender. How would they change if they were smiling, shouting or crying?  Encourage the characters to speak and listen to what they say.

Try it and see what happens. Use the comment box below to share anything unexpected or inspirational. It might feel strange but no one is watching and the experience may well be worth it!


To come…

A future post will revisit the Walter Benjamin essay on The Work of Art in the time of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction by Douglas Davis (1991) to examine the notion of original work having an ‘aura’, which a reproduction cannot have but at the same time, challenge the exclusivity of a first edition. This will link to the advantages and disadvantages of the rise of internet poetry and poets.


tarot card images on this page from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rider-Waite_tarot_deck 


On Archetypes and Poetry

image showing coffee beans and musical notation
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/assembly-coffee-aroma-mood-figure-1001158/

Sometimes I think an archetype is another word for poem.

Successful poems have resonance. The reader ‘feels’ something which connects them to the words on the page or spoken poetry. This can be a similar reaction to the idea of universal archetypes, in particular the way Carl Jung described them.

Archetype comes from the ancient greek for original pattern and Jung identified 12 universal images and symbols found in cross-cultural myths, legends and fairy tales. The twelve are Ruler, Creator/Artist, Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Rebel, Hero, Wizard, Jester, Everyman, Lover, Caregiver. They represent instinctive understandings and recognition.

image showing a full moon in the mountains
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/painting-knight-night-oil-paints-3995999/

Poems work when they tap into something inside of us. A poem can shock or surprise, or simply resonate on an individual level. It might remind us of an experience or someone we once knew, and until that moment, the recognition may have existed unconsciously, only rising to the surface in response to stimuli. When this happens the effect can be powerful.

Jung proposed the deeper part of the psyche had two layers of unconsciousness, the personal and the collective. The personal unconscious was a unique collection of personal experiences, while the collective unconscious contained the archetypes, a set of universal emotions surrounding the characteristics of, for example, mother, child, trickster or expectations around life events such as birth and death.

Today. much has been written about the social construction of reality and how individuals are products of their environment. However, I think most people are aware of experiences which suggest something deeper may be going on. For example, seeing a bonfire at night, a full moon or the sound, sight, and smell of the sea, often seem to tap into something primeval and universal which can’t always be easily explained.

image showing a fire at night beside a river
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/bonfire%20at%20night/

A successful poem can have a similar effect. It touches us but we’re not always sure why while suggesting a link between poetry and archetypes also raises the often asked question – what is a poem?

This week, I read poet Wendy Pratt’s reflections on the writing of her new collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse. Wendy shares some thoughts on poetry as a process of trying ‘to locate the thing that is beneath the words‘. This sounds to me a bit like another way of saying there could be a relationship between the poem and universal concepts such as archetypes.

image showing the front cover of Wendy Pratt's new book When I think of my body as a horse

Wendy describes poetry as a ‘translative process’ and writing a poem involves trying to

‘…locate the thing that is beneath the words….poetry is the thing that emerges from between the lines, from between the thoughts that are created out of a need to define or rationalise life.

We need creativity to ‘manage our thoughts, we need that translative device to make sense of the instinctive animal part of us which sits below the higher thinking, problem-solving part of us. Poetry, then, sees the animal that is the instinct beneath the skin that is higher thinking self, it sees the truth beneath the words, the truth of ourselves. That’s how I see it.’

Reading this reminded me of a piece I wrote about the nature of poetry several years ago, which used the analogy of Avicenna’s thought experiment known as the Floating Man. This imagines human existence beyond the senses. The person floating in air is disconnected from touch, hear, taste or smell but still has consciousness. For me at that time, a poem which achieved resonance spoke of universal experiences. I aligned this with the concept of floating and being forced into the different type of awareness. This comes when we’re removed from the crutch of day-to-day reality, to be jolted into the recognition of something we didn’t see coming.

image showing a man in a parachute flowing in the air
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/floating%20man/

I also included a connection to the oral tradition of poetry, such as Homer, which tended to be fluid rather than fixed. Every time the Iliad and the Odyssey were told there were changes in style and detail, but the core message always survived. I suggested this idea of an unchanging core lay at the heart of poetry today, when it speaks of the universal aspects of life which readers recognise and identify with. Compared to the oral tradition, fixing a poem as text on the page is probably a damaging thing to do. The challenge for poets is to make their words light enough to float and create space where the reader can slot in their own interpretation.

Here’s a final analogy of poetry connected to beekeeping.

image showing honey bees on a frame
image showing honey bees from https://pixabay.com/photos/honey-bees-insects-hive-bee-hive-401238/

A primary form of contact between honey bees is the waggle dance.  On a bright sunny day, I watched a bee use its body to tell other bees where a good source of food could be found. The message had movement and shape and in a moment of insight, I realised the dance was usually performed in the darkness of a closed hive. These bees were using a different form of communication, a bit like poetry does.

I think we read poems in darkness. They exist as text, but the response we feel when a poem ‘works’ is something internal. It can’t be seen, only felt in the way a waggle dance exists without sight, and works using different stimuli such as vibration. To return to Wendy’s post, we need a ‘ translative process’ and maybe this is can be understood as interpreting a message received from the darkness of the subconscious where archetypes still survive.

The next post will look at how tarot cards use archetypal symbols and how their images can be a useful source of inspiration for poets and writers everywhere.

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Poems and other writings about bees

image showing a cluster of honey bees on a frame
my own image showing a cluster of honey bees on a frame

I began keeping bees last year and several people have asked if I’m writing poems about them. The answer is no. I’m not sure why this is.

My poetry mentor, Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft, suggests I’m too close to them.  It’s only been nine months since my first two colonies arrived on the allotment. It’s been a steep learning curve, involving as much stress as delight! The ups and downs are at least equal, if not tilted slightly towards the problems. I lost a swarm within the first month and had several queens mysteriously vanish, all recorded in the Beginner’s Blog for the Beverley Beekeeper’s Association.

But I read a lot about bees, as in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and here are some of my recommendations from other writers and poets who’ve turned to bees for inspiration.

  • Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal records his experiences of beekeeping, highlighting the details in a poetic diary which has the reader standing beside him as he discovers the intricacies and mysteries of bees.
  • The Bees is a collection of poems from Carol Ann Duffy. Bee are the direct subject of some poems, while in others they exist on the periphery.
  • An anthology of bee poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey, brings together a selection of poems from a variety of authors, all fascinated by the influence of bees on individual lives.
  • Ten Poems about Bees introduced by Brigit Strawbridge Howard is a pamphlet anthology containing a selection of bee-inspired poems.
  • Six Bee Poems by Jo Shapcott speak of how keeping bees can involve a process of transmutation as they slowly take over your body and life.

Bees are also the topic of a number of novels.

  • The Bees by Laline Paull is written from the perspective of Flora 717, who works up from her intial role as a sanitation bee to become a nurse bee, and then a forager bee before promotion to taking care of the Queen bee. Echoing the iconic Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, about the gull who wanted to do more than fly, this work of fiction offers an insider view of life inside a hive.  
  • Telling the Bees by Peggy Haskell is set in mid-America. It tells the story of Albert, who has kept bees all of his life throughout the 20th century and contains wonderful descriptions of his experiences, shaped into a murder mystery story.  
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is set in Alabama in the 1960’s, a time of racial tensions and their consequences for Lily and her friend Rosaleen. Lily finds herself in the home of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, who keep bees and the novel contains fascinating details of how they do this.
  • One of my favourite books (so far) is The Beekeepers Pupil by Sara George. Based on historical records, it tells the story of Francois Huber, a beekeeper in the 18th century who is slowly losing his sight and employs Francois Burnens as an assistant. Their discoveries included the realisation that queen bees mate during flight rather than in the hives, as was previously believed, and together they developed The Leaf Hive, with movable frames which allowed for greater observations. Translations of Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History Of Bees inscribed by Burnens, are also available online.
  • My other favourite novel is The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This explores the lives of William from England, who in 1851 set out to build a new type of beehive using the concept of bee space, George in the US in 2007, a beekeeper whose livelihood is being challenged by modern farming methods, and Tao from China in 2098, whose job is to hand paint pollen onto fruit trees because the bees have disappeared.

There are also autobiographical accounts of beekeeping and I’d recommend reading A honeybee heart has five openings by Helen Jukes, which records the narrator’s first experiences of keeping bees in a top bar style hive in Oxford.

With regard to textbooks on beekeeping, the three most often recommended are

However, if you are like me, and fascinated by the history of keeping bees, I’d suggest the following.

  • The Hive – the story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson. This covers the art and craft of beekeeping from the ancient greeks and includes myth and legend alongside the development of beekeeping over the centuries.
  • The Sacred Bee by Hilda M Ransome which specialises in the folklore of bees and bee culture in including practices in China, Egypt, and Babylonia, as well as more recent customs in England and Europe.
  • The Buzz by Thor Hanson looks at the history of different types of bee, including the bumblebee, all accompanied with some fabulous colour photos of the different species.

So whatever your interest in bees, there’s something for everyone.

I’ve only listed the books I’m familiar with, so if you have any recommendations of your own, please share them in the comment box below.

Happy reading!

image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells
my own image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells

 

Poetry in the time of Covid

image showing an open book with stand-up pictures
Image from pixabay.com

Does poetry still matter?

In the time of Covid, poetry is thriving. More people than ever are going online for ways to communicate and connect while the multitude of poetry groups, courses, workshops and open-mic performance events are encouraging engagement with the art and craft of poetry. This has to be good. Poetry was birthed from an oral tradition which existed for millennia, long before the stories they told were captured in words.

Assyrian bas-reliefs from the British Museum (public domain)

The Epic of Gilgamesh (author unknown) was subscribed by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC from much earlier texts. The written versions of the Iliad and Odyssey (Homer) are thought to be from around the 8th century BC, but were first spoken centuries before. Transmission of these works was fluid rather than fixed because nobody recited the same tale in exactly the same way. While the core remained solid, how it was told would shift and change depending on the audience.

image showing multiple copies of beowulf on a bookcase shelf
Image showing a selection of Beowulf texts (public domain)

Sagas such as Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English, and the bardic tradition of the Celtic world, e.g. the Mabinogion , first compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier sources, were all dependent on voice, sometimes accompanied by music.

The integration of poetry with song can be seen down through the years. Translations of the Iliad begin with references to singing, e.g. their first words Sing Goddess (Caroline Alexander and Richard Lattimore) and Rage Goddess. Sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles (Robert Fagles). Line six of Paradise Lost (John Milton) contains Sing heavenly muse, Song of myself (Walt Whitman)begins I celebrate myself, and sing myself while another Whitman poem is called I sing the body electric while the collection of poems in Cantos (Ezra Pound) have the Italian or song as their title.

image showing an illustration from the Iliad with greek text
Image showing illustration and text from the Iliad (public domain)

Somewhere through the years, the association of poetry with music was lost. I might have liked poetry classes better at school if this link had been used as a teaching technique. I hated poetry, and blame the National Curriculum of the time which thought young teenagers should know works such as Rape of the Lock (Alexander Pope), Khubla Khan (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and page after page of the pastoral epic Michael  (Wordsworth). I still remember with discomfort those long hours and even longer texts!

image shpwing typesetting
Image of typesetting text (public domain)

Today there may be more chances to understand poetry with the inclusion of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, and Benjamin Zephaniah. However, the decision to make poetry optional for GCSE students in England during 2021 risks the loss of any gains made by the promotion of more accessible language and ideas. We have Covid to thank for this which provides a neat return to the title of this post.

Over the past six months, I’ve joined a number of online poetry workshops and courses, with hundreds of other participants writing and sharing their work. The process of daily writing prompts, alongside the giving and receiving of feedback, has been a powerful experience. I’m learning what works and what fails to resonate. There is no bar to participation other than the standard agreement that contributions should not promote racism or abuse etc and critique be kind and constructive. For anyone seeking a starting point I’d recommend Wendy Pratt and Angela Carr or taking a look at this month of poetry prompts list from Jo Bell. YouTube is also an excellent source of advice and guidance, especially this channel by Jen Campbell who also introduces the history of fairy tales in videos such as Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and many more.

image showing the front cover of a book of fairy tales by hans christian anderson
Image showing a Hans Christian Anderson book (public domain)

To answer the question does poetry still matter? I think the answer is Yes. In the time of Covid, it seems to matter a lot. With millions of people being socially distanced and isolated, poetry can offer both distraction and occupation. Today, it exists in more forms than ever and  future post will explore page and stage poetry, which opens up the difference between poems written to be read or spoken.

For all I didn’t take to Wordsworth at school, he was spot on when he described poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity while, many centuries earlier, Plato wrote poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

With those quotes in mind here are the links to papers by Dana Gioia which are worth reading. Can Poetry Matter? and Poetry as Enchantment. The latter is also the title of a YouTube lecture by Gioia from the Library of Congress.

All comments welcome. Please use the Comment box below to reply.

image showing an open book with pages reflecting a filed of yellow flowers and a stream
Image from pixabay.com

 

 

Thetis poetry collection

Thetis changing into a lioness as she is attacked by Peleus, Attic red-figured kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci, Etruria – Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

I’m not sure what to call Thetis. One the one hand it’s a collection of poems but on the other, it’s a poetic narrative which could also become a script. At the present time, it doesn’t seem to fit into any existing categories and I’m not sure if this is a strength or a weakness.

I wrote Thetis as a submission for the final portfolio of my Creative Writing degree in 2018. It’s a collection of 65 poems which tell the story of the Trojan War through the life of Thetis, mother to Achilles.

In Homer, the universal themes of love, loss, and war in the Iliad are presented through the eyes of men yet women play primary roles. The motif of the rage of Achilles stemmed from his refusal to fight because Agamemnon took away Briseis and the war itself was caused by the abduction of Helen by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite have central roles and while Thetis appears at all the key moments, Homer doesn’t appear particularly interested in delving into her past or motivations for action.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510–500 BC, Louvre

So far, Thetis has rarely appeared as a central character whereas my portfolio placed her centre stage. The poems begin with Zeus and Poseidon both being attracted to her but were dissuaded by the prophecy which warned her child would murder its father. They agreed to marry her to a mortal to break the curse and chose Peleus King of Pythia. When Peleus first encountered Thetis he was so overcome by lust for her beauty he raped her on the beach. At their wedding, Eris the Goddess of Strife, presented a golden apple to the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. Inscribed with the words To the Fairest, Zeus ordered Paris to choose between them. Aphrodite convinced Paris to choose her by promising the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, thereby setting in place the events of the Trojan War.

Immortal Thetis with the mortal Peleus in the foreground, Boeotian black-figure dish, c. 500–475 BC – Louvre.

Some stories claim Achilles was the result of the rape of Thetis, while others say she had six children by Peleus, drowning each one. Achilles was the magical seventh child. Determined to save him, she dipped the babe in the River Styx for protection but was interrupted by Peleus before being fully submerged. This gave rise to the legend of the Achilles Heel, his only physical vulnerability.

Thetis returned to the ocean leaving her son to be raised by Peleus, who also fostered Patroclus. In an attempt to avoid Achilles being taken to Troy, Thetis hid him on the Island of Skyros where he was disguised as a maid to Princess Deidamia.

Odysseus discovered the deception and took Achilles to Troy, an event I used this as a trigger for Thetis to hate Odysseus and continually seek revenge.

Thetis and Hephaestus, Attic Red Figure, Antikensammlung Berlin

Part Two introduces Helen as the catalyst for the ten year war. It covers the death of Patroclus, Hector and Achilles himself, while Part Three covers the consequences for Thetis and how she finally takes revenge on Odysseus when he attempts to sail home to Ithaka once the wars were over.

Selections from Thetis were due to be performed at a Rotunda Nights event in Scarborough in May 2020, but like so many events that year, it was cancelled. Plans to reschedule the performance began but with the current situation, these are fragile to say the least and at the time of writing, I’m not sure what the next step will be.

Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria, 560–550 BC; note the Gorgon shield, Louvre

Sources

My research was based on translations of Homer’s Iliad for the underlying story but I also read everything I could find which made reference to the events and people, in particular, Trojan Women and other plays by Euripides.

I also read contemporary work such as Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Christopher Logue’s War Music, alongside adaptations in novel form, including both Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Miller, The Firebrand by Marian Zimmer Bradley, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Achilles by Elizabeth Cook and Ransom by David Malouf. 


 

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